Andrea Jack was so proud when she won Support Dogs’ Foster Carer of the Year Award back in 2011, after her fantastic volunteering efforts for the charity she loved were recognised.

Little did she know that within just three years her circumstances would change dramatically and she would go from volunteer to client, after developing a severe form of inflammatory arthritisAndrea and her support dog Ruby qualified as a partnership in October 2016 and the pair are now inseparable.

“My experiences with Support Dogs have been overwhelmingly positive, and Ruby is my little miracle,” says Andrea, now 45.

“She has given me a purpose and helped me regain my confidenceAndrea's connection to Support Dogs goes back to 2007, when she was working for a homeless charity, and went on a fundraising training course.

On the course she met a fundraiser from Support Dogs and was so impressed by the charity’s work she decided that when her circumstances allowed, she would become a foster carer.

Three years later, and living near Support Dogs’ training centre in Brightside, Sheffield, she finally got her wish, looking after a large number of dogs and going on to win the Foster Carer of the Year award at the graduation ceremony a year later.

“ I was in floods of tears, as, to me  being a foster carer for Support Dogs was a blessing and it was a real honour  to have the company of these wonderful dogs without the commitment  or cost of owning one,” she remembers. “I felt I should be saying ‘thank you’ to Support Dogs rather than the other way round!”

She continued to be a foster carer and also helped as a volunteer fundraiser in Sheffield, shaking tins in supermarket collections, and helping with the annual Bark in the Park event in Hillsborough Park.

But when she moved to a different part of the city further away from the training centre and started working nearer to home so she could pop home at lunchtime, Andrea decided it was time to get her own dog.

“I thought I’d get a dog that had the right character and attributes to be a support dog, as I thought I could train him up to a fundraising/demo dog – this was before Support Dogs had its own demo dogs,” she explains. “So I got Ruby in 2014.”

As a much younger woman Andrea had been diagnosed with an inflammatory form of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis. Fortunately it had been kept more or less in check by anti-inflammatory drugs for the previous 20 years. But just three months after getting Ruby Andrea suffered a huge, painful flare of the condition. Her fingers swelled up like sausages and she was in considerable pain.

After some months delay she was also diagnosed with a related condition called psoriatic arthritis, a severe, chronic condition which affects the joints and skin. She had to take several weeks off work until this initial flare up subsided sufficiently to return to work.  It took a further 12 months working through various powerful drugs, supported by the excellent rheumatology team at Sheffield University Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, before a combination was found that at least powerful drugs stabilised her condition.

Andrea applied to Support Dogs for Ruby to become her assistance dog, but in a further blow, within weeks after being accepted onto the course her long-term relationship ended, she moved out into a house on her own, and her confidence crashed.

“The training course was probably the most challenging experience, both emotionally and physically, of my entire life; I wanted it to work so badly,” says Andrea. “For the six months we were in training I was in a pretty tough place and was unwell, but Ruby got me out of the house and gave me a purpose. She got me to connect with people and regain my confidence, which was shot.

“All my joints are affected but my back, hands and knees are the worst and I often drop things and find it hard to bend over and pick them up. Ruby helps me those kinds of everyday tasks – she pulls of my socks and trousers, opens doors, picks up the post, or anything I’ve dropped.

“But she’s also helped me with confidence. I was suddenly living on my own, and because of my joints I often struggled to get out of the bath with no-one there to help me. Having Ruby there to bring me the phone if I needed help in an emergency made a huge difference.”

Andrea is now getting on with her life. She has moved back to her home town of Wigan to be closer to her family and works full time, from home, for an international precision medicines company. The company have always been incredibly supportive of Andrea and Ruby’s partnership and Ruby is now well loved across the organisation. Ruby has a European pet passport, and recently accompanied Andrea to the four-day all company meeting in Ireland, taking the ferry journeys, meeting venues and activities in her stride.

Andrea adds: “I was talking to another Support Dogs’ client recently and something she said really resonated with me. She said that when you have a dog you can have a really strong bond with it, but when it qualifies as your assistance dog it’s like you are one being – and that’s exactly how it is.

 “Ruby has changed my life and without Support Dogs that would never have happened.”